Special Report

Iowa Election 2023

Clarke County’s voter turnout soared with Donald Trump’s name on the ballot. Will the trend continue?

DES MOINES, IA – November 14, 2023: Clarke County, Iowa’s courthouse. (Photography by Jordan D. Brown.)

New York University’s Reporting the Nation-Reporting New York cohort cultivated a specialized report on the 2024 presidential election. In this report, RTN-NY students focus on Clarke County, Iowa’s voting patterns and what candidates residents are leaning towards with less than a year until Election Day.

Eyes are darting to Iowa early as the nation prepares for the upcoming presidential election. 

The state of Iowa’s substantial role in presidential elections dates back several election cycles. 

In the last five elections, Iowa voted for the overall winning presidential candidate four times consecutively. The one off year was in 2020, when the state’s majority voted for former President Donald Trump over President Joe Biden.

South of Iowa’s capitol Des Moines is Clarke County, Iowa, a small county with a large political impact.

Over 6,100 Clarke County residents were registered to vote this October, according to the State of Iowa Voter Registration Totals. While Clarke County is small in size, with almost 9,700 residents, the predominantly white county comes out big in numbers when it is time to vote.

Clarke County, Iowa’s Republicans make up almost 49 percent of the county’s active voter population, according to the Iowa Secretary of State’s Office. This demographic, along with the voter turnout in Clarke County, has continuously increased over the past three presidential elections.

The county saw a 69.78 voter turnout in the 2012 presidential election, and the outcome has soared ever since. 

The 2016 total election turnout in Clarke County topped 2012’s with a 73.5 percent turnout, followed by another jump to 75.25 percent turnout in 2020.

The common denominator? Trump’s candidacy. His two attempts for presidency drove Clarke County voters to the polls in the highest numbers seen since President George W. Bush’s victory in 2004.

In 2020, 67.30 percent of Clarke County’s eligible voters voted for the former president while 31.42 percent of voters elected Biden, according to the county’s unofficial voting results

The county also outpoured in support of Trump in the 2016 election compared to Democratic nominee Hilary Clinton.

Trump’s ability to retain support might be what drove Iowans to polls in 2016, 2020, and possibly again in 2024 as people saw in the latest Young Republican Committee meetings on Nov. 11.

The Young Republican National Federation hosted its national meeting in Des Moines, Iowa from Nov. 11 to 12 and featured a special mock caucus for participants to vote for their desired presidential candidate.

Trump came in second place, a stunning result after Republican candidate Nikki Haley came out on top with the most votes and won the caucus.

This outcome surprised some of the Young Republican Committee members, including 36-year-old Kristen Valle, who voted for Trump.

“I didn’t know anybody really even liked Nikki Haley very much. I don’t believe a woman should be president. I know that’s an unpopular opinion, so I didn’t vote for Nikki Haley. I voted for Donald Trump because we already saw how he was as a president,” Valle said.  

Valle traveled from Orange County, California to Des Moines, Iowa specifically for the national meeting. After casting her vote for Trump, which she plans to do again like in 2016 and 2020, she reflected on what the country looked like under Trump’s presidency and her support for Trump against his opponents.

“I just want lower gas prices again,” Valle said. “I live in California, so our gas is about $7 a gallon. I just can’t take it anymore, and all the inflation is out of control. I just think that he’s the best candidate to get the job done and getting our country back to where it was before.”

Concern for gas prices under the current presidency were a common theme in conversation with Clarke County residents and their support for Trump.

Kelsie Ewing, a 26-year-old Osecola, Iowa resident, recalled her first time voting for Trump in 2016 and how prices are impacting her decision ahead of the 2024 election. 

“That was the first time that I was able to vote, and from what I know in everything from the past and Democrats being in office and everything, I feel like this country has kind of went downhill especially with prices and everything like that,” Ewing said.

“As we see now the prices of everything skyrocketing and gas and everything like that, I knew that we needed something different in office,” Ewing said. “And so really [I’d vote for] any Republican but I liked Trump because he actually said what needed to be said and he stuck to what…he wasn’t afraid to tell people what he thought, what they needed to hear.” 

Robert Rapier, senior contributor at Forbes, reported the average gas prices from the past four presidential terms with data from the Energy Information Administration.

Under Trump’s presidency, the average price for gas was $2.57 per gallon, while the prices under Biden’s term up to this March averaged $3.60 per gallon.

However, several factors play into the rise and fall of gas prices, and the change is not necessarily based on who is in the Oval Office at the time.

The return of low gas prices is what people want to hear, as Amy Johnson, member of the Iowa Democratic Party,said.

“If you’re just listening to the rhetoric, it’s what people want to hear,” Johnson said, “I think they want to hear, everything’s going to be good for us and it’s all going to be easy. Who doesn’t want to hear that? But that’s not reality. That’s not what [Trump] delivered at any point in time. So, I mean, I think people have to be able to see, we had that and it didn’t work. I think we need to be better at sending that message.” 

Johnson, 49, believes it will be a hard challenge to flip Iowa back to blue, especially in counties like Clarke County, but it’s not impossible.

“I think if parties run the wrong candidates, it can be harmful. We have seen it’s not very common, but we’ve seen Iowa go blue before,” Johnson said.

Although Biden is likely to win the Democratic primary, author Marianne Williamson, show host Cenk Uygur, and Minnesota representative Dean Phillips are all vying for the presidential bid.

As of November, Trump leads the Republican primary race nationally with almost 60 percent in the polls, according to ABC’s 538 Election Polls. Biden is far ahead in the polls within the Democratic primary, leading with 69.3 percent support.

In Iowa, Trump is ahead with 44.9 percent of support from voters, followed by Ron DeSantis, Nikki Haley, and Vivek Ramaswarmy, ABC’s 538 reports. On the Democratic side, Biden most recently led polls with 50 percent of votes.

Despite the former president’s ongoing legal troubles and absence from all of the Republican candidate debates, support for Trump has not wavered from many of his supporters like 64-year-old Laurie Spencer.

When asked about Trump’s numerous convictions and criminal cases, Spencer said, “It hasn’t changed my support for him. At all.”

The Guthrie Center, Iowa native admired what Trump did in his previous term as president, describing the country in “very good shape when he left office.”

Spencer plans to vote for Trump again in 2024 as she did in 2020 and 2016. Although she was unsure about what exactly drew her to Trump, Spencer knew she was not voting for a Democratic candidate, especially not Biden. 

“We’ve just presented a weak president and [Biden] doesn’t seem to have a handle on things and he’s not stood..just not stood firm against other countries and they can see that. I just don’t think he was looking out for our interests,” Spencer said.

In Clarke County, residents like Spencer share similar sentiments, further splitting the divide in the county by political party. Bruce Harris, member of the Iowa Democratic Party, said the polarization within Clarke County by which candidate one supports is overbearing.

“With Trump, what we’ve seen is such a polarization and it’s on both sides…I have really good friends. A lot of friends that are Republicans but you just can’t talk to them. And it’s really divided now,” the 71-year-old said.

If not Trump, Spencer considered DeSantis, Haley, and Ramaswarmy as potential frontrunners for the Republican primary seat, and expected Clarke County residents to follow suit.

Both candidates from the Democratic and Republican parties will need more than gas prices to sell voters by next November. With the ongoing Israeli-Hamas conflict, inflation, and the Ukraine-Russia war, there are a lot of topics driving people to the polls in the 2024 election.